A rough night: 150 execs sleep on the streets of Auckland

The Lifewise Big Sleepout this Thursday (July 2) sees 150 soft corporate types abandon their comfy beds to raise money to combat homelessness

Jan Bibby isn't looking forward to Thursday night - the Lifewise Big Sleepout in Auckland. I mean, the Vodafone executive doesn't even like camping holidays – what are hotels and motels for?

But for the third year in a row, Bibby will join almost 150 soft corporate types for a night sleeping on a piece of cardboard in the central city.

It’s an experience which will give Bibby just a hint of what it's like for the hundreds of people who sleep rough – and cold – in New Zealand each night.

OK, so it's "gleeping" on the street ("glamping" reference - Ed). You bet Bibby will have her thermals, and the warmest sleeping bag she can rustle up. There will be food brought in, and security people around. There are powerpoints so the rough sleepers can keep their gadgets topped up. Best of all, she knows she'll be back in her warm bed tomorrow night.

But for Bibby, the Lifewise sleepout is a sort of "there but by the grace of God" evening.

"I grew up in family where mum and dad didn't have a lot of money but we always had roof over our head and warm bed and three square meals. Some people take that for granted now."

One of the hardest part of the sleepout, she says, are the stories she and her fellow volunteers will hear from real and former homeless people – stories of childhoods filled with abuse, alcohol, multiple foster homes; stories of mental illness, addictions, prostitution. They paint a picture not of "ne'er do wells" getting what they deserve, but of ordinary people who drew the short straw, leading them to pick sleeping rough as the best (or the only) alternative.

"You understand how tenuous the line between having a home and not having a home is. It's good for me to remember how lucky I am; how lucky my children are.

"Some of [the homeless young people] do poetry, sing. Some of these kids are hugely talented. I never come away without shedding a few tears."

Lifewise estimates more than 100 people sleep rough just in Auckland's city centre each night, and thousands live in "unsafe or unsuitable" accommodation. About half of them are young people – under 24 years old – and that's the focus of this year's Lifewise Sleepout, now in its sixth year.

"You understand how tenuous the line between having a home and not having a home is. It's good for me to remember how lucky I am; how lucky my children are.”

Each sleeper tries to beg, steal or borrow $1500 from sponsors, and the overall goal is to raise $250,000 for Lifewise’s aim of getting everyone off the streets and into permanent homes by 2020. 

With less than a week to go before this year’s sleepout, more than $160,000 has already been pledged. (Donate to Lifewise here) or to Jan Bibby here.)

In addition, using the high profile nature of the annual event – with its mover-and-shaker executives and its TV coverage – Lifewise aims to get corporates working on solutions the rest of the year as well.

"It's a bunch of influential people that can do some stuff and make a difference," Bibby says. "Last year they ran a workshop about what things we could do – brainstormed some initiatives that council could then get off the ground. 

Jan says last year there were 11 in the Vodafone team, and they raised $11,000, which was matched by the Vodafone foundation.

"We didn't do bake-offs, just people giving a donation. We put it on Facebook and Linked in, and we used social media and friends and family."

Why would business people get together and take time out from busy lives to sleep on a sheet of cardboard? 

Bibby, who is general manager of the human resources team at Vodafone, says it's a sign of the times; increasingly staff want more than just a pay cheque from their employee – they want signs the company has some wider community commitment.

"People want to work for organisations that aren't just about shareholders, but about giving back.

"I find with people, particularly young people, who come into the organisation [for an interview] it's often the first question they ask, what do we do as corporate citizen.

"They come to see if this is organisation they want to work for. 

"In past they asked around the job, the pay, what am I going to get from working for this organisation. Now they ask what do you do for the community, the environment."

The sleepout is also a chance to bring a bunch of Vodafone people together who she would not normally meet up during day-to-day operations, Bibby says.

"The Vodafone team has grown year-on-year. Once you do it once, you stay with it. I can't not do it now." 

All you need to know about the Lifewise Big Sleepout.

Where: AUT quad, Auckland CBD. There’s also a Big Sleepout in Rotorua

When: Thurs July 2, starting at 6.30pm

How to get involved: You too can join – and get a few high-power contacts. Bidding is open on TradeMe to win a piece of cardboard and a privileged position among the great and the good – including Blues players Josh Bekhuis and Joe Edwards and singer Lizzie Marvelly, and  the bosses of big New Zealand corporates - Anthony Healy (BNZ), Peter Reidy (KiwiRail), Graham Yan (Heritage Hotels), Derek McCormack (AUT),  and Paul Bull (Signature Homes).

The Trade Me auction promises a “once in a lifetime bed and breakfast” experience, with “gold standard open-plan living under the twinkling city lights”, a “deluxe cardboard mattress, and luxurious tarpaulin to use in case of rain”.

Going for a song – only $210 when Idealog checked it out.

Top tips for Lifewise Big Sleepout newbies:

From Jan Bibby: "Get there early, so you get under the concrete balcony, in case it rains. Get a piece of cardboard, and a warm sleeping bag." 

Or see a group of homeless people’stips for sleeping rough.

Etiquette: Girlie chats and midnight feasts are off the cards.

"It's not designed to be fun; it's designed to be a bit humbling," Bibby says. 

Live streaming: Gloat at your cold mates from the warmth of your own bed. This year, Lifewise is going to be streaming the event live: www.bigsleepout.org.nz

Hot off the Press: While researching this story, Idealog editor Nikki Mandow decided she really should be there on the night. She slept out for a week in London when she was much, much younger (and much less wimpy), and is (kind of) looking forward to doing the one-night version in Auckland. She has just sorted her profile, and you can sponsor her at http://bigsleepout.org.nz/page/nikkimandow